I approached Hope Jahren’s memoir, Lab Girl, with a bit of trepidation. You see, Jahren is an award-winning geobiologist who studies plants, making her area of expertise one in which I’ve never had much interest. (Confession: I can’t tell an oak from a maple or a peony from a petunia.) So when The New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani wrote that Lab Girl “does for botany what Oliver Sacks’ essays did for neurology,” I was persuaded to pick up the book. I’m glad I did, for Lab Girl is as much a paean to self-discovery and enduring friendship as it is an illuminating introduction to the life of plants.
Hope Jahren grew up in rural Minnesota. As a young girl, she spent her days with her mother, the two immersed in literature and poetry as her mother worked toward a bachelor’s degree in English literature. She spent her evenings with her father, playing in his laboratory at the community college where, for more than four decades, he taught introductory physics and earth science. The lab was her father’s sanctuary, and it became Jahren’s, too. So strong was its pull that, even as an adolescent, she knew that one day she, too, would have a lab of her own. Today, that lab is in Honolulu, at the University of Hawaii, where Jahren is a tenured professor.
Jahren interweaves the story of her coming of age as a research scientist with chapters on the life-cycle of plants. These latter chapters—devoted to trees and flowers, seeds and soil—are as information-rich as they are engagingly written. I will likely never forget this discussion of the relationship between trees and mushrooms, which, Jahren writes, are “the best—and really only—friends that trees have ever had.”
“You may think a mushroom is a fungus. This is exactly like believing that a penis is a man. Every toadstool, from the deliciously edible to the deathly poisonous, is merely a sex organ that is attached to something more whole, complex, and hidden. Underneath every mushroom is a web of stringy hyphae that may extend for kilometers, wrapping around countless clumps of soil and holding the landscape together. The ephemeral mushroom appears briefly above the surface while the webbing that anchors it lives for years within a darker and richer world. A very small minority of these fungi—just five thousand species—have strategically entered into a deep and enduring truce with plants. They cast their stringy webbing around and through the roots of trees, sharing the burden of drawing water into the trunk. They also mine the soil for rare metals, such as manganese, copper, and phosphorous, and then present them to the trees as precious gifts of the magi.”
Jahren relays her personal story through prose that is just as evocative. With brutal honesty lightened by moments of humor, she reveals her complicated relationship with her mother, her battle with manic depression, and the challenges facing research scientists who are forever seeking the funding that is the lifeblood of their work. (“Ask a science professor what she worries about. It won’t take long. She’ll look you in the eye and say one word: “Money.””) For Jahren, though, there is the additional challenge of being a female in a male-dominated field. When she becomes pregnant and is banned from her lab, she breaks down—and then fights back the only way she knows how: “After five o’clock when everyone in the building has gone home for the day, I … sneak into the lab. I cannot do anything productive, but I instinctively resist the cruelty of my department chair’s order by staging a sort of one-woman pregnant sit-in.”
Always in Jahren’s labs—at times, literally, living in them—is Bill Hagopian, Jahren’s best friend and lab manager. The two cross continents together, rummaging for plant life in places as far away as the North Pole. It’s Bill, himself brilliant and carrying his own emotional baggage, who helps Jahren through her manic episodes and who relocates with her as she moves from university to university trying to secure tenure. Theirs is a love story without sex or sexual tension, for their relationship is grounded in an almost religious devotion to the science they do in the laboratories they build.
If Lab Girl has a purpose beyond being an educational and engrossing read, it is to raise readers’ awareness of the natural world in all its beauty and strength and fragility. “As a rule,” Jahren observes, “people live among plants but they don’t really see them.” She “can see little else.” And she is concerned about their future. So, Jahren closes her book with a plea to readers to plant a tree, to care for it, and to watch it grow. “Every day, you can look at your tree, watch what it does, and try to see the world from its perspective.”